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Vineyard and Winery Sustainability 

It is no secret that the world of winemaking can have a detrimental effect on the environment. Vineyard and winery owners need to get more serious about sustainability and minimize their impact on the environment. 

If you’re a business owner or executive in charge of operations, there are countless opportunities to lower your wine’s carbon footprint, improve your company’s efficiency, and increase your profits through sustainable practices and environmentally conscious decision making. 

In this article, expect to learn the ins and outs of sustainable winemaking practices to elevate your business’ reputation while lowering your carbon footprint. It will explore the industry through three different lenses; viticulture, viniculture, and sales and distributions that get your wine into the hands of your consumers.

What Is A  Sustainable Vineyard and Winery

To tackle sustainability in the wine industry there is a lot of scope to consider, and it can get quite overwhelming to know where to start if you have yet to begin your journey.  

Try to keep in mind that every piece of land is different from the next, so what works on some vineyards may not be applicable to yours. This is alright! Generally, one third of the wine industry’s carbon footprint is made during the growth and development of the wine itself, also known as viticulture and viniculture. The other two thirds of its footprint develops during the packaging, distribution, and storage of the wine, so if making changes to your production process is not an option, you can still make a massive difference just through conscious decisions in the late stages of the process.

Sustainable Vineyard and Winery Terms To Understand

A sustainable winery can look a lot of different ways since the scope is so large. At the bottom line, a sustainable winery can be defined as a winery that keeps consideration (and takes action) for the economic, social, and environmental effects their product has on the world. There are a few buzzwords in the wine world that need to be addressed before we dive in. Below you will find a graphic defining the three most common buzzwords you may hear about this topic in the wine industry and what they mean for you and your product as a business owner.

Sustainability: Including the steps of biodynamic farming, and organic farming, the term “sustainability” in reference to the world of wine simply means that responsibility is taken for the endeavors effect on the planet, environmentally, economically, and socially.

Biodynamic: Biodynamic farming takes organic farming a step further to include the health and biodiversity of the soil in the conversation as well as that of the grapes. 

Organic: In the world of viticulture, “organic” can be defined as the farmer not using synthetic pesticides, or fungicides in the growth of their grapes. 

The Benefits of a Sustainable Vineyard and Winery

Whether or not you are passionate about the task of going green and addressing climate change, taking on more sustainable practices in your wine development process will be beneficial to your business, both top line and bottom line. Sustainable initiatives can lead you and your product to higher quality grapes, higher quality wines, an elevated brand, and a larger sense of community ready to support your future endeavors. 

In the process of taking your product and your brand to the next level, through sustainable winemaking practices you will be able to feel good about doing your part to ensure the generations to come will be able to share the passion for the craft of wine by protecting their climate, their soil quality, and their air quality all through the journey.

Vineyard Sustainability 101

There are 7 key areas of sustainability the owners and operators should be aware of:

  1. Water Efficiency
  2. Soil Health & Fertilization
  3. Pest Management
  4. Energy Efficiency
  5. Waste and Wastewater Management
  6. Transportation
  7. Packaging and Material Sourcing

These areas can be divided into three  parts: the growing of grapes (viticulture), the making of wine (viniculture) and business operations (packaging, sales & distribution). The following sections look at both areas.

Green Viticulture – Cultivating Grapes in an Eco Friendly Way

Viticulture, or the cultivation of grapevines, is the first major stage in the wine production process. As you can imagine, the majority of the sustainability issues in this stage are common amongst the world of agriculture. Modern technology has changed the way we farm but climate change is asking us to take a nod to the knowledge of our ancestors and try the old methods once more. The extra work creates higher quality wines. The following suggestions to tackle your carbon footprint are not so much innovations to your system, more so just “new-old” practices to consider for a benefit to your crops, wines, and branding. 

1. Water Efficiency: Try Old-World Dry Farming Method To Conserve Water

As climates continue to change, drought has begun to hit winegrowing regions across the globe. Now more than ever, your use of water in grape development is an essential process to take into consideration. In the winemaking process irrigation is optional, and even discouraged in some parts of the world. In fact, vineyard irrigation is banned in most parts of the European Union, and was not practiced in California until the 1970’s when the process of drip irrigation started to trend in the community. 

Since then, vineyards have started to notice that practicing irrigation on grapevines can result in lazier plants that become dependent on the process. The vines have no reason to stretch their roots further into the soil to seek the moisture beneath the topsoil. The problem with this is that this moisture is much healthier for the plant because it contains natural nutrients and provides the vines with a stronger defense against environmental stress like heat and drought. As we continue to see rising temperatures and more frequent droughts in wine growing regions, deep vertical roots are essential to ensuring your desired yield of grapes as well as a consistent quality in them. 

Grapevines are not a water intensive crop, so if your region allows you to depend on rainfall it will create a higher quality, better tasting wine without the energy, technology, or time needed to irrigate the crops. A great example of regions that swear by this method are France and Oregon.  In France, the irrigation of mature vines will even revoke your appellation d’origine contrôlée (controlled designation of origin certification, AOC). Even in regions where rainfall is not as common like Santorini, Greece, your vines cane adapt to live off only a couple of inches of water per year, so if you still feel the need to irrigate, we suggest trying out precision irrigation on each individual crop with this adaptation advantage in mind.

To learn more about dry farming, check out the Deep Roots Coalition founded in Oregon dedicated to spreading the word about its benefits. 

2. Soil Health: Manage your Soil Quality and Biodiversity

There are a lot of different variables that come into play when looking at ways to ensure biodiversity in your farm land and soil, while also preventing nutrient loss and soil erosion. In this portion of the article expect to read about the importance of your tilling style, as well as sustainable forms of fertilizer, pesticides, fungicides, and pest management!

The best tilling method in viticulture is none at all! Before the Agricultural Revolution in the late 18th to 19th century, no-till farming was an extremely common form of agriculture seen across the world. This was largely due to the lack of machines capable of tilling on a large scale at that point in time. Since tilling has become a commonly used practice, we have now learned that tilled soil leads to heavy erosion and biodiversity loss on your land. 

Similar to spraying RoundUp on your cultivation site, tilling it free of any vegetation will not only disturb its natural environment above ground, it also disturbs the environment underground within the soil. While this is not a recognized practice by the biodynamic certified of wine, Demeter, or USDA organic practices, the idea behind ending your tilling habits has your crops best interest at heart. A healthier and more biodiverse soil allows for a healthier vine, and a better product. Yet to reach the wine industry, a common agricultural practice is to till every other row of crops.

Fertilization and Chemicals: Ditch those Fertilizers and Constant Weeding. Try Cover Crops!

Another aspect of no-till agriculture is the removal of the practice of weeding around your crops. An alternative to this would be to utilize a no-till drill to seed in weed resistance cover crops that can allow you to prevent invasive species growth while promoting your microbial biodiversity and nutrient cycling in your soil. 

It also allows you better soil to water relations as having a variety of cover crops in one area can maintain the moisture of the farmland without the use of synthetic fertilizers that leave your soil dependent on its presence and degrades its quality in the long term. “Weeds” that are native to an area normally grow because their presence provides something for the soil. Some are nitrogen fixing, or grow in response to lacking nutrients.

While synthetic fertilizers harm your soil quality, the alternative of organic fertilizers releases a copious amount of Nitrous Oxide (NO, a warming greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere. Instead of organic fertilizer, try using perennial grasses as a cover crop and implementing the use of compost in your soil to ensure they maintain their nutrient diversity. Perennial grasses are a great alternative because they can cover a lot of ground, and they even store carbon! 

Cover crops and increased biodiversity in your farm can replace the need for chemical pesticides that put not only the environment but your community in harm’s way as the chemicals leak into the local atmosphere and run off into local water sources. An increased biodiversity can keep your smaller pests at bay.

3. Pest Management: Avoid Chemicals and Dangerous Pesticides

While an increased biodiversity in your plants and soil can manage and prevent small pests and fungi from developing, you may still be concerned about larger pests like rodents sneaking into your production area to steal some tasty snacks from your vines. For this purpose we highly suggest taking in and raising or renting some vineyard animals to stand guard over your crop for you, while managing the growth of your cover crops. 

Some great “natural lawn mowers” to monitor the growth of your cover crops include sheep, pigs, geese, and llamas. These animals are too small to reach the grapes but manage to maintain your grasses in the fields so you do not have to.

To combat weeds, and smaller pests, animals like armadillos, and chickens are an amazing option to eat your smaller bugs, worms, and other creatures that put your grapes at risk.

One of the most common concerns amongst vineyards are grape-stealing animals like rats, and small birds. Instead of environment disrupting noise cannons scaring away these furry thieves, a great alternative is birds of prey. Falcons are highly intelligent and trainable, and will spend their days hunting these intruders for you with a much higher accuracy thanks to their natural instincts. Check out Falcon Force for an example of this alternative to noise polluting solutions.

Green Viniculture – Making Wine in an Eco Friendly Way

Viniculture, or the development of grapes into wine is the second major stage in the wine production process. The transformation from fruit into wine requires a decent amount of energy on an industrial scale, and if gone unconsidered, can have quite a significant impact on the environment through the byproducts it releases, the energy it consumes, and the waste it produces. In fact, the C02 generated as a byproduct of the alcohol fermentation process has the highest concentration of industrial C02 emissions.  Another direct emission from the winemaking process is caused by the refrigeration and insulation process, resulting in synthetic refrigerants being released into the atmosphere.

4. Energy Efficiency: Reduce Your Consumption, Migrate to Green Energy

While those direct emissions are unavoidable in the production of your wines, the indirect emissions caused by energy use for lighting, heating, ventilation, and pumping are in your control to account for. Many wine industry associations have curated energy saving toolkits for wineries to implement for their specific needs in their processes.

Investing in the sustainability of your buildings can make up for some of what is lost in fermentation and insulation. One challenge you could make for yourself could be the Living Building Challenge if you are up to it. This would consist of entirely closed loop water systems, producing more energy on property than you consume, and rejecting building materials on the International Living Future Institute’s Red List. One example of a winery that has successfully completed this challenge is Cowhorn.

Because of the amount of offsets needed to be accounted for, it is highly encouraged to to strive for LEED certifications on all your property buildings. This is quite an ambitious effort if you are starting your sustainable journey new, but that is alright! The Green Business Bureau has a program to help you prepare for certifications like this that provide you tangible growth and marketing tools to help advertise and share your journey with your clients and community!

5. Wastewater Management: Re-use your water 

One direct impact from the winemaking process that you have a little more control over is the wastewater you create while hosing down barrels, tanks, and floors for cleaning. It even provides a lot of opportunities to you! Caustic based cleaning solutions, and water used for this purpose can be captured and reused after minimal treatments as precision irrigation water (if you have not ditched the practice altogether). Otherwise, before you dispose of the water you must make sure you treat it properly before disposal.

Sustainable Packaging & Distribution

Two-thirds of the wine industry’s global footprint is made after the wine is produced. Packaging can become extremely costly to the environment, but there is a lot of creative movement toward new solutions to tackle what wine packaging should look like in our changing planet.

6. Transportation and Distribution: Eliminate Waste and Weight

Shipping wine can be done in a more sustainable way.  From eliminating plastic bubble wrap and styrofoam from your packaging materials, to providing consumers with gentle reminders to recycle packaging and boxes, advocating  a sustainable mindset in this part of your business can minimize your footprint as well as educate consumers on how they can do their part. 

Consider using pulp shippers and lighter glass bottles so that more wine can fit on trucks at a lighter weight. Look for eco-friendly shippers that offset their footprints. This is a good way to keep things in your shipping department sustainable. 

Consider using compostable ice packs  to preserve the integrity of the wine and be gentle on the environment. You can use these cotton/water combination ice packs amongst a bevy of other recyclable materials that are earth friendly.  In addition to using ice packs, many wineries opt for faster shipping during the warmer months using 2-day shipping and more efficient refrigerated truck services.

7. Packaging and Materials: Make It Easy To Recycle and Ditch the Metal

If bottled before retailing, the weight of glass bottles adds lots of emissions to the transportation of the product. Another issue with glass bottles is despite their recycling capability, they are extremely energy intensive to produce and they require the use of harmful, planet warming natural gasses to break down their raw materials. 

That being said, glass can also be recycled up to two dozen times so a great way to account for the use of your glass is to source recycled bottles as much as possible for your product! 

Another aspect of packaging that can have a controversial impact on the environment are the corks and aluminum or tin used to close each bottle. Cork is an extremely sustainable material. It is biodegradable and entirely renewable but cannot decompose on its own in a home or landfill. The proper disposal of your corks is essential to keeping your business sustainable. There are several companies that specialize in the recycling of corks if you do not have the means to do it yourself. Check out Recycle Box by First Mile as an example of an external resource to give your corks their second life!

The metal that holds the cork in place is easily that much more problematic of the two materials. As a conflict material, tin is a highly unethically sourced metal that’s use should be avoided as much as possible. A first alternative may be thought to be aluminum but while not considered to aid in conflict, this metal is highly energy intensive to source and use.

Thankfully, the metal portion of wine bottling is mostly aesthetic so it can be skipped altogether! Additionally, if your company is looking to lean into the challenges that sustainability can lead you through, you could take your shot at unconventional forms like bags, cartons, and restaurant taps. In fact, Carton packaging’s footprint is five times lower than glass’! Depending on your brand and target market, these alternatives are not always an option so another way you could account for the weight of shipments is by shipping it in steel bulk to be packaged just before retail. This can cut your emissions by 40 percent!

The Business Benefits of a Sustainable Vineyard and Winery

There are so many benefits to beginning or improving  your sustainable journey as a wine producer, and there are too many resources out there to help you along the way to keep putting it off.  Here are some of the more tangible and intangible benefits:

  • LOWER OPERATIONAL COSTS – By reducing waste and using water and energy more efficiently, businesses can save money.
  • IMPROVED REPUTATION – Companies that are greener tend to be perceived as more ethical, reliable and responsible.
  • ELEVATED BRAND – Letting people know your business cares about the environment and society will associate “good” with your brand and improve your overall brand identity.  Sustainable businesses are also perceived as being more honest, with higher quality products and services.
  • HIGHER SALES – Being known as a green business will attract new customers, specifically consumers and companies who seek out sustainable businesses, products and services.
  • COMPETITIVE DIFFERENTIATION – Being sustainable allows you to stand out when competing for business.  In fact, it is common today to see requests for proposals requiring sustainability information from competing vendors bidding on a contract.
  • STRONGER WORKFORCE – Employees, especially the younger generation, seek out employers who are social and environmentally responsible.  Being green and promoting this will attract the best employees and enable you to hire exceptional purpose-driven employees.
  • IMPROVED MORALE, HIGHER EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT – Employees care about the environment and want to know the company they work for also cares.  Your employees will be more fulfilled and satisfied knowing they work for a company that is environmentally responsible.
  • PURPOSE-DRIVEN CULTURE – If you are a leader at your company and want to create a purpose-driven green culture,  formally communicating your mission and commitments is the foundation that will help accomplish that.

It can be really overwhelming at the beginning of your journey to decide which sustainability projects to take on. Green business certifications could provide a framework for your sustainability program and help you prioritize.  If you are looking for a good place to start, Green Business Bureau certification and online framework will get you started and inspired for your transformation. It’s a great way to formalize your program and engage employees. Before you know it, you’ll be able to reap the benefits from all your hard work!

About the Author

Jessica Bugh

GBB Green Ambassador

Jessica Bugh is a content writer for Green Business Bureau who recently received a degree in Design and Innovation Management at Oregon State University with a focus on Sustainability. She is passionate about sustainability in the world of business and hopes to begin a career in it for the future. In her personal life, Jessica loves to explore video game development, botany, and enjoys traveling to the east coast to visit her family whenever she can.

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